Lone Star (1996, John Sayles)

Lone Star is Texas Gothic. There’s nowhere else the story plays the same way except a border town, at no time other than when it does; it’s all about the sins of the mothers and fathers playing out. Actual sins, imagined sins, hidden sins. It’s about heroes and villains and how they’re the same thing. It’s very much about love and loss and anger and sadness. It’s about fear. And it’s about joy and goodness. There’s never any kindness in Lone Star without goodness backing it up. It’s hopeful without being aspirational. Because bad things happen all the time and good people suffer.

The film opens with the C tier–Lone Star has got an A plot, a B plot, and many C plots running between the two and around them. But all the actors who are in C plots have business in the A and B plots. Like how Miriam Colon’s story arc about her relationship with one of her employees, Richard Coca, is more complicated than she realized is a C plot, Colon has a lot to do with A plot actor Elizabeth Peña because Colon’s playing her mother. So when the film opens with Stephen Mendillo and Stephen J. Lang finding a body out next to an army base, Mendillo and Lang are sidekicks to the mystery. Because Lone Star’s a mystery. It’s more a drama, but it’s a mystery too. It’s about what happens when you turn drama into mystery. Or vice versa.

The body discovery introduces sheriff Chris Cooper, who we soon learn is the son of a famous 20th-century sheriff, played in flashback by Matthew McConaughey. The body’s got a sheriff’s badge next to it, so Cooper goes and talks to the mayor, Clifton James, who used to be deputy. Jeff Monahan plays the young version of James. They work for corrupt thug of a sheriff Kris Kristofferson back in the fifties, and Kristofferson disappeared. So Cooper starts thinking it’s Kristofferson’s body they found and investigates his now-dead father’s past. Meanwhile, Joe Morton has taken command of the nearby army base—the body found on property adjoining—and he’s dreading running into his own father, the only Black bar’s owner, played by Ron Canada. Lone Star’s town is a mix of Mexican, white, and Black. We find out that mix is vital to the film early on, when Morton’s wife, Oni Faida Lampley, talks to Peña about it before we even find out how their characters figure in.

Peña and Cooper used to be in love in high school before their parents broke it up. They moved on, married other people, left or were left by other people, and now they’re running into each other again. The film’s got so many timing coincidences the characters can’t help but comment on it—McConaughey’s on Cooper’s mind already because they’re dedicating a courthouse to him and the naming decision was contentious because the Hispanic population dramatically outnumbers the white now; the city’s changing. The mystery angle drives Cooper’s investigation, but how the people he interviews talk to him about the past. Lone Star takes place in a world where it’s time to start telling the truth and not the white American fairytales. Because in Texas, there are lots of bodies still buried.

Another C plot involves army grunt Chandra Wilson, who finds herself in trouble in Canada’s bar and then, incidentally, in Morton’s crosshairs too. Because of how writer and director Sayles lays out the B plot—Sayles follows Eddie Robinson, as Morton’s son and Canada’s grandson, into the bar one fateful evening, and it connects to a bunch of other plot threads as Morton goes through a self-discovery. Juxtaposed against Cooper’s, but Cooper and Morton never have a scene together. They’re just two guys from the same town who have a lot of similar trauma caused by men who never figured out how to stop causing it. It’s an achingly quiet film. Every line, every gesture is precise. Sayles edited as well, and his cuts are frankly seductive; there’s never a cut where you don’t wish the scene had held on for another moment, good or bad. Lone Star makes several promises about its characters and their dramatic potential, then it realizes them one after the other in the third act. It’s one accomplishment after another—there are four plot resolutions: the B plot for Morton, the A plot for the mystery, the A plot for the romance, the C plot for Colon. Morton’s B plot is separate, other than sharing some characters, but the other three all echo and ruminate through each other. For the mystery’s sake, Lone Star has to sacrifice the Colon and Peña plot. There’s work on it, indicators, promises; the future’s unknowable and often sad.

It’s breathtaking stuff. Sayles nails it, ably shifting between drama, mystery, and romance. Cooper and Peña are a fantastic couple. Their romance is appropriately cute, apprehensive, passionate, and tragic. Morton probably gives the best performance. He’s got the best acting in a scene. Just utterly destroys. Canada’s great. Colon’s outstanding; she’s got the most challenging part. Gabriel Casseus is great as young Canada. Tony Amendola, Gordon Tootoosis, and Frances McDormand are all stops along the way in the investigation; all are great; Amendola in particular.

Kristofferson. Kristofferson is the best supporting performance. He’s an exceptional weasel hero, up against a younger, actually heroic replacement. McConaughey’s excellent in that role.

Awesome technicals—Mason Daring’s music, Stuart Dryburgh’s photography, Dan Bishop’s production design, the sound effects crew (Eugene Gearty and Lewis Goldstein are the credited editors). Lone Star’s always gorgeous, always sounds amazing, there’s nothing else quite like it.

Lone Star’s magnificent work from all involved.

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